Black Sabbath (I Tre volti della paura), 1963, directed by Mario Bava. Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier, Jacqueline Pierreaux.

Synopsis: Boris Karloff introduces three tales of terror: In “A Drop of Water,” a nurse steals a ring from the finger of her deceased patient, only to find that the dead do not rest easy, nor do they forgive the wrongs done to them. In “The Telephone,” a prostitute is terrorized by phone calls from an ex-client, a client she thought was long gone from her life. In “The Wurdulak,” a Russian count encounters a family that is being preyed upon by their vampiric patriarch.

There had been color gothics before Black Sabbath. As early as Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera, horror filmmakers had used color for effect. The Hammer films in England and the Corman Poe films in the United States were already bringing color horror to the big screen when Bava first took the director’s chair. But Bava’s film is a landmark in this progression. Virtually alone of his contemporaries, Bava’s first horror film in color reinvents the roots of horror in German expressionism in a color idiom. This is most evident in the intertextual materials starring Boris Karloff. These are brightly colored, but the colors are perfectly pitched to generate a certain...sepulchural tone to the procedings. Bava has lit the venerable Mr. Karloff from a variety of odd angles, placing reflected areas of color on unexpected surfaces. It certainly doesn’t look natural, but it sure looks good, emphasizing Karloff’s familiar features while making them seem new and strange at the same time.

Bava translates this same innovation to the actual stories anthologized in the body of the movie. For instance, there doesn’t seem to be an acutal source that lights the body of the dead medium from below as she approaches the nurse in “A Drop of Water” nor can one imagine any earthly source for some of the odd colors of light that occasionally illuminate the characters in “The Wurdulak.” “The Wurdulak” is the most obviously expressionistic of these stories: even its exteriors are shot on a sound-stage, where Bava has carefully composed the backgrounds to be slightly...wrong. The story doesn’t take place in the natural world, Bava’s camera suggests. The laws of nature don’t apply.

Were this the ONLY thing Bava brings to the movie, it would still rank as a landmark. Its most immediate imitators include Corman’s Masque of the Red Death and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan a year later, as well as indescribable weirdies like The Bloody Pit of Horror (Il Boia Scarlatto), Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, and Dario Argento’s Inferno. But that’s NOT all that Black Sabbath introduces to the horror film. Arguably the least effective segment in the movie, “The Telephone” is never-the-less the most influential part of the movie. What we see in “The Telephone” is the genesis of the giallo thriller. Bava would later re-use portions of “The Telephone’s” shot compositions for his first, full-on giallo, Blood on Black Lace, and elements from this segment pop up in other films by both Bava himself, and by his most immediate successors--most notably Dario Argento, whose sense of style seems to derive directly from this segment. Argento’s style of filmmaking, at least in his earlier, earthbound gialli, has been described as the “telefono rosso” style--a play on the Italian films of the 1930s where white telephones were the height of bourgeois elegance, but also, perhaps, referring to the segment from Black Sabbath. The conventions of the giallo are almost all present in “The Telephone,” from the beautiful victim, the palpable sense of doom, and the stylish aesthetic of violence. There is also the hint of class warfare that makes the political overtones of the giallo so popular in Europe--the more violent the end for the uppity upper classes, the better.

Black Sabbath’s contribution to the embryonic giallo is probably its most enduring influence on the horror movie, but it is as the last great gothic role for Boris Karloff that the film is probably best remembered. Karloff is superb as the host of the movie--a turn that recalls his wonderful introductions to the Thriller television show a few years earlier. But as the vampire patriarch in “The Wurdulak,” Karloff really shines. This is his best performance since the glory days of Val Lewton, and he imbues the role with as much menace as he can muster, which is quite a lot, truth be told. Karloff would have a couple of other juicy roles later in the decade (most notably in Michael Reeves’s The Sorcerors and in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets), but this is his last role of note in the idiom for which he is best known. That it is one of his best such roles is indicative of why Karloff remains the best-loved star of horror cinema.

As was true of Bava’s first horror movie, Black Sunday, Black Sabbath mines a heretofore untapped wellspring of horror traditions: Russian literature. Black Sunday is derived from Gogol’s “The Vij;” both “A Drop of Water” and “The Wurdulak” derive from Checkov and Tolstoi, respectively. One wonders, given the effectiveness of these stories, why no one else has revisited Russian literature and folklore for material. Certainly, Baba Yaga and her magical hut would seem tailor-made for the movies. This is idle speculation, but I wonder if there is a strain of Russian cinema, unseen by Western eyes, that mines this very tradition. Bava’s early films give tantalizing hints...

A final note: When I Tre Volti della Paura was imported to the United States, the irrepressable Samuel Z. Arkoff, head of American International Pictures made two important changes to the film. First, he had it dubbed into English--the film follows the Italian practice of dubbing everyone in the first place, so in the English dub, Karloff’s voice matches his lips, which is not the case in the Italian dub. Second, he shuffled the order of the stories. In the Italian version, “The Telephone” comes first, “The Wurdulak” second, and “A Drop of Water” third. There is a certain logic to this, since “A Drop of Water” is arguably the most frightening segment in the movie, while “The Wurdulak,” as the longest segment, could be seen as the film’s centerpiece. Arkoff disagreed, and put “A Drop of Water” first--presumably to start the film with a bang--”The Telephone” second, and “The Wurdulak” last. I presume that Arkoff’s reasoning goes like this: “Karloff is the reason people are paying to see the movie, so if we put him last, the audience will stay through the entire thing to get to Karloff.” I can’t really argue with this. Arkoff’s cut of the movie is the one with which I am most familiar, so I have a preference for it, but there are significant differences in the Italian cut that make both versions of the film essential. I hate the fact that the Italian cut dubs over Karloff’s wonderfully sinister voice, but I hate the fact that the AIP cut changes the gender of the voice on the telephone. The current DVD version does not give you the choice between these versions (it includes the Italian version), so caveat emptor, I guess..